Inside the race to master supersonic airlift

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When British Airways last flew its supersonic Concorde jet nearly 20 years ago, the era of shuttling between New York and London in less than four hours while indulging in champagne, caviar and lobster seemed gone forever.

Now, however, aircraft manufacturers and airlines are trying to rekindle that dream and pumping millions into companies that say they’re building better, cleaner, more cost-effective jets that can fly at supersonic speeds. i.e. faster than the speed of sound. They hope to succeed by 2029, when travelers can travel business class between New York and London in just over three hours, all for $5,000 to $10,000 round trip.

But the race comes at a crucial moment. Airline revenues have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, putting pressure on businesses to find more revenue streams as they slowly recover. As climate change accelerates, carriers are under pressure to expand operations while keeping carbon emissions to a minimum.

In the meantime, technical challenges remain. Jet engine technology, noise regulations and shortages of clean, alternative aviation fuel will make it difficult for airlines to secure government approvals on planes and keep ticket prices low, officials said. reviews. Bold corporate claims about the return of supersonic travel will be met head-on with scientific challenges for years to come, they added.

“These manufacturers are trying to reinvent supersonic aircraft,” said Dan Rutherford, aerospace program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “But they can’t reinvent the science – and the science is actually quite overwhelming.”

Supersonic travel has captured the imagination of aviators for decades. In 1947, US Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly at supersonic speeds, inspiring commercial aviation companies to follow suit. In 1962, the British and French governments signed a pact to develop a supersonic airliner, called the Concorde.

In 1976, the Concorde made its commercial debut with two airlines – British Airways and Air France. Over the next two decades, the airplane became a symbol of luxury living. Champagne, caviar, lobster and lamb were on the menu. Hollywood celebrities, athletes and business moguls were photographed aboard the plane. The jet would fly at 60,000 feet, ferrying passengers from New York to London in just around three hours, cutting travel time nearly in half.

Despite the glamor and speed, significant issues plagued the jet. This created a sonic boom so loud that airliners could only fly above the speed of sound over water. The jet consumed huge amounts of fuel, driving up ticket prices; a round-trip plane ticket between New York and London cost $12,000 in the early 1990s.

The jet’s engines were also loud, angering residents who lived near airports with Concorde jets. And in 2000, an Air France Concorde flight from Paris to New York caught fire, crashing into a hotel shortly after takeoff and killing 113 people, creating an image problem from which it was difficult to recover.

“It was more expensive to run [and] too big to be economically viable,” said Iain Boyd, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “And then they had an unfortunate accident…and I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Since Concorde’s last passenger flight in 2003, there had been few attempts to resuscitate the service, until recently.

Over the past decade, many start-ups have sprung up promising a better and more cost-effective supersonic jet for commercial air travel. Earlier this week, Canadian business jet maker Bombardier successfully tested a smaller private jet at supersonic speeds, called the Global 8000. Cost: $78 million per jet.

Blake Scholl, chief executive of Boom Technology, a Denver-based company founded in 2016, said his company hopes to have a supersonic jet, called Overture, in the skies by 2029. Later this year, the company will innovate on its production site in South Carolina.

Scholl added that his company’s supersonic jet, which could seat 65 to 88 passengers and fly at just under twice the speed of sound, will cost airlines $200 million apiece. United Airlines has a firm order for 15 planes, he said, which could increase to 35 more. Japan Airlines said it could buy up to 20 planes, Scholl added.

He said the company would not replicate Concorde’s failures for several reasons. Carbon fiber technology has improved since the 1960s, allowing the Overture to be lighter and more fuel efficient than the Concorde. The software is better, allowing his team to build a more aerodynamic plane. And his company plans to use sustainable aviation fuel — which is an alternative fuel derived from plant waste and other organic materials — allowing Boom to be more environmentally conscious.

“All of this put together means that for Overture One, the airlines will be profitable,” he said.

Mike Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, said his company’s bet on supersonic travel will meet customer demand for high-speed business travel. It plans to put most planes on routes from Newark International Airport to London by the end of the decade, with possible connections to Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

United would configure the plane to seat about 80 passengers in business-class seats similar to those it has on longer domestic flights from Newark to Los Angeles, he said, rather than the sleeper beds he said. available on international routes. Ticket prices would cost about the same as a current business class fare and would hover around $5,000 and $10,000 for a round-trip route, he said.

“You have this convergence of technology,” he said, “that will allow us to make something economical and profitable that wasn’t economical and profitable with the old technology.”

But some aerospace scientists and engineers are skeptical, pointing out that claims from aircraft manufacturers and airlines look promising, but are difficult to create.

Boyd of the University of Colorado said noise will be the biggest challenge. He notes that sonic booms might be less of a problem due to NASA’s progress in muffling sound, but planes will still only be able to fly at their top speeds over water, making travel difficult. supersonic waves between cities in the United States.

It will also be difficult to meet FAA and international noise regulations, he said. Supersonic planes require narrow, aerodynamic engines, experts said, but these are harder to keep quiet enough to meet government noise limits. Public debates about aircraft noise are also fraught with political issues, Boyd added.

“The inconvenience and discomfort of extra noisy planes just for a relatively small number of wealthy people doesn’t sound good,” he said. (Boom spokeswoman Aubrey Scanlan said she’s “confident” the Overture will meet FAA noise regulations.)

And Rutherford, of the International Council on Clean Transportation, said fuel costs will make supersonic air travel difficult to become a viable business. Supersonic planes will consume seven to nine times more fuel than normal “subsonic” planes, he said.

Rutherford added that companies like United and Boom recognize this and are committed to using sustainable aviation fuel. But the supply of sustainable fuel is limited and the cost is high – two to five times more expensive than fossil jet fuel.

“It’s honestly a dealbreaker, I guess,” he said.

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